The civil rights movement was a struggle for equality and social justice, led primarily by African Americans, and carried out by a growing number of advocates especially through the 1950s and 1960s. Integration, voting rights, and equal opportunities were the primary focus of the struggle. The movement mostly followed the path of peaceful and nonviolent protests in the form of marches, boycotts, and sit-ins, spanning two decades, during which institutional discrimination against African Americans was gradually reduced.
Three important amendments were added to the U.S. Constitution after the American Civil War (1861-1865): the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery; the 14th Amendment, which granted equal protection under the law, and the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote.
However, despite these new laws, discrimination and prejudice against Blacks persisted, especially in the Southern states. Starting in the late 1800s, laws restoring white authority and separating Blacks from whites and were introduced. Under these Jim Crow laws, Blacks were not allowed to use the same public facilities as whites.
Moreover, most Black men could not exercise their right to vote because they first had to take a literacy test, which was designed to be difficult, if not impossible, to pass. Even in the Northern states, where Jim Crow laws were less prevalent, African Americans experienced discrimination in the workplace and in schools.
Brown v. Board of Education
In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was legal to have separate public facilities for Blacks and whites as long as these facilities were equal. This principle of separate-but-equal facilities was used by the South to justify segregation.
Efforts to challenge the segregation of public schools emerged in the early 1950s. In 1952, five cases regarding racial segregation of public schools were brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. One of these cases was filed by African American Oliver Brown (1918-1961) against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, after his daughter was refused entry to all-white elementary schools in Topeka. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, became the case that consolidated all of the similar cases being filed across the nation regarding Black-white segregation. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation of public schools was illegal and ordered schools to integrate.
The 1954 ruling provided a boost for the fight for equal rights. The following year, a Black teenager named Emmett Till (1941-1955) was kidnapped, tortured, and killed in Mississippi after he whistled at the white cashier of a grocery store. His brutal murder drew attention to the movement for civil rights, with thousands of people attending his funeral.
In December of 1955, the civil rights movement gained a heroine in Rosa Parks (1913-2005). On her way home from work in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1, Parks rode a bus and took one of the designated seats for Blacks at the back of the bus. Later, a white man got on the bus. When he could not find a seat in the "whites-only" section at the front of the bus, the driver told Parks and three other Blacks to give up their seats. When Parks refused, she was arrested and fined.
The incident angered many people. Soon after, Black community leaders led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and initiated a boycott of the Montgomery bus line. For 381 days, about 40,000 African Americans refused to ride the city buses.
On November 23, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated seating in public buses was unconstitutional and ordered the Montgomery bus system to integrate.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Similar incidents soon began in other cities. Some were organized; others took place as grass-roots efforts inspired by their example. King became a leading figure in the civil rights movement, with his advocacy for nonviolent means of protest, including civil disobedience.
After the Montgomery bus boycott ended, he helped establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization dedicated to ending segregation and promoting the rights of African Americans.
Little Rock Nine
Despite the 1954 ruling against the segregation of public schools, there was still widespread resistance to integration in the South. In 1957, Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, opened its doors to Black students. On September 3, nine Black students, later nicknamed the "Little Rock Nine," arrived at the school for classes.
They were prevented from entering the school by the Arkansas National Guard, under the order of Governor Orval Faubus (1910-1994). On September 24, the nine students were able to get inside through a back door, only to be evacuated when an angry mob arrived. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) then sent federal soldiers to escort the Little Rock Nine to and from their classes.
Civil Rights Act of 1957
The Little Rock Nine incident focused public attention on integration and put pressure on the U.S. Congress to pass new civil rights laws. On September 9, President Eisenhower signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1957. This new law allowed federal prosecution of anyone who tried to prevent any citizen from voting. It also established a civil rights division in the Justice Department and created a civil rights commission to investigate cases of voting rights violations.
Sit-ins and Freedom Rides
On February 1, 1960, four college students challenged the segregation laws in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Greensboro Four sat down at the lunch counter of a Woolworth store, which was designated as "whites only." When they asked to be served, the staff refused. They were asked to leave, but they refused and waited patiently until the store closed.
The next day, the Greensboro Four returned to the same lunch counter, this time with 20 other Black college students. The same thing happened. In the following days, despite rampant and persistent verbal abuse from whites, the Greensboro Four kept returning to the store with an ever-increasing number of companions. On July 25, 1960, the Woolworth lunch counter finally gave in and served the Greensboro Four.
The "sit-in," which was featured on national media, led to similar actions in other cities. It also encouraged students to get involved in the civil rights movement.
In 1961, Black and white students rode buses through the South in "freedom rides" to challenge the segregation laws on interstate transportation. White mobs slashed the tires of some buses and set them on fire. Freedom Riders were viciously attacked in some instances. The violence subsided after federal troops were ordered to protect the Freedom Riders, but incidents of brutal lawlessness did not completely end. Eventually, segregation on interstate travel was banned.
March on Washington
On August 28, 1963, about 250,000 Blacks and whites attended the March on Washington, in Washington, D.C. The event, organized by King and other civil rights leaders, was a mile-long march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial.
The goal was to call for better civil rights laws and equal employment for everyone. Before the large crowd, King gave a moving speech in which he talked about the struggles of African Americans and shared his dream of equality for all.
Civil Rights Act of 1964
On July 2 the following year, President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which President John Kennedy (1917-1963) had proposed before he was assassinated. This new law banned segregation in public places, limited the use of voter literacy tests, and empowered federal authorities to ensure the integration of public facilities. The law also guaranteed job equality and banned employment discrimination.
The struggle was far from over, though. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination in voting on the basis of race, Black voters were still prevented from registering in southern states, including Alabama.
Selma to Montgomery March
To protest the discrimination against Black voters, 600 protesters in Alabama set out on a 54-mile march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Along the way, they were blocked by state and local police, who attacked the group with clubs, whips, and tear gas.
Hundreds of supporters headed to Selma after watching the incident on television. Two days later, King led more than 2,000 people in a protest march to Montgomery. However, state troopers blocked their way once again.
On March 21, about 2,000 people set out from Selma, this time guarded by U.S. troops sent by President Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969). On March 25, they reached Montgomery, where they were met by almost 50,000 Black and white supporters.
Voting Rights and Fair Housing
On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act granted African Americans the right to vote and banned voter literacy tests, thus allowing greater African American participation in politics and government.
Throughout his life, King continued to lead campaigns for change. Although many people supported his nonviolent movement for equality, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, there were others who advocated a less peaceful approach.
On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee. The uprising that followed his death put even more pressure on the government to introduce more civil rights laws.
A week later, on April 11, the Fair Housing Act was signed into law, which banned discrimination regarding the sale, rental, and financing of housing. This was regarded by many historians as the last significant law of the civil rights era.
The civil rights movement brought together African Americans and people of color with white allies in the struggle for freedom and equality. Within two decades, it helped bring about the end of legalized segregation, improved voting rights for Blacks, and made strides in reducing institutional discrimination in employment and housing. Under the leadership of King, the movement earned the respect and support of the world with its path of peaceful protest, civil disobedience, and nonviolent resistance. The ideals of the civil rights movement are evident in continued efforts to end discrimination against African Americans, people of color, women, LGBTQ+ individuals, and the differently abled.